Friday, April 30, 2010

Children of the Gods: Stoic Theology from a Modern Pagan Perspective

"You have changed my life."

Two things happened last Saturday (April 24) that affected me deeply. One was very sad and very profound, and that was the death of the great philosopher Pierre Hadot. The other was much happier, and almost too trivial and frivolous sounding to mention alongside Hadot's death: I finally saw Avatar. And yet I must mention both because it was their combined effect that inspired me to venture, to the best of my limited abilities, to write about Stoic Theology. Before proceeding to that subject, though, first I must say a little more about the great philosopher who died and the great movie I saw last Saturday.

Pierre Hadot was one of the very few modern scholars who understood, and put into practice, the true spirit of philosophy. Hadot knew that ancient philosophy had a telos, that is a purpose or "end", and, in particular, that ancient philosophers taught "in such a way that the disciple, as auditor, reader, or interlocutor, could make spiritual progress and transform himself within."

Hadot was not shy about drawing attention to the sharp contrast between the ancient approach to philosophy and the modern enterprise that goes by the same name. In the opening sentences of his seminal What is Ancient Philosophy?, Hadot compared the ancient focus on philosophy, singular, as a way of life with the modern habit of studying philosophies, plural, as lifeless, competing intellectual systems.

Pierre Hadot not only dared to proclaim philosophy as a spiritual path, but to accurately present philosophy as a kind of spirituality independent of any reliance on (or relation to) Christianity or Christian ideas. He even went so far as to broadly imply, but without beating people over the head about it, the intrinsic enmity between ancient philosophy and Christianity. Here is how one Christian reviewer responded:
According to Pierre Hadot, a prominent historian of ancient thought and professor emeritus at the College de France, philosophy today—specialized, professional, and detached from life—is but a shadow of its glorious Athenian past. But that is not the original part of his thesis. A wide array of modern minds have thought the same: Hegel lamented that philosophy is no longer “practiced as a private art, as it was by the Greeks,” Heidegger called for a return to the Greek grammar of being, and Kant claimed that “the ancient Greek philosophers remained more faithful to the Idea of the philosopher than their modern counterparts have done.” What is new in What Is Ancient Philosophy? is that its author confidently identifies Christianity as the agent of philosophy’s decline.
For more on Hadot please see the wonderful tribute to him written by Michael Chase, an accomplished philosopher in his own right who is also the English translator of many of Hadot's works:

Remembering Pierre Hadot -- Part One
Remembering Pierre Hadot -- Part Two

Here are some excerpts from Chase's obituary of his friend Pierre Hadot:
Born in Paris in 1922, Hadot was raised at Reims, where he received a strict Catholic education, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1944. But he soon became disenchanted with the Church, particularly after the conservative encyclical Humani Generis of August 12, 1950, and he left it in 1952 (Eros also played a role in this decision: Hadot married his first wife in 1953) . . . .

Pierre Hadot began to study and lecture on Marcus Aurelius—studies that would culminate in his edition of the Meditations6, left unfinished at his death, and especially in his book The Inner Citadel.7 Under the influence of his wife Ilsetraut, who had written an important work on spiritual guidance in Seneca, Hadot now began to accord more and more importance to the idea of spiritual exercises, that is, philosophical practices intended to transform the practitioner's way of looking at the world, and consequently his or her way of being. Following Paul Rabbow, Hadot held that the famous Exercitia Spiritualia of Ignatius of Loyola, far from being exclusively Christian, were the direct heirs of pagan Greco-Roman practices. These exercises, involving not just the intellect or reason, but all a human being's faculties, including emotion and imagination, had the same goal as all ancient philosophy: reducing human suffering and increasing happiness, by teaching people to detach themselves from their particular, egocentric, individualistic viewpoint and become aware of their belonging, as integral component parts, to the Whole constituted by the entire cosmos. In its fully developed form, exemplified in such late Stoics as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, this change from our particularistic perspective to the universal perspective of reason had three main aspects. First, by means of the discipline of thought, we are to strive for objectivity; since, as the Stoics believe, what causes human suffering is not so much things in the world, but our beliefs about those things, we are to try to perceive the world as it is in itself, without the subjective coloring we automatically tend to ascribe to everything we experience ("That's lovely," "that's horrible," "that's ugly," "that's terrifying," etc., etc.). Second, in the discipline of desire, we are to attune our individual desires with the way the universe works, not merely accepting that things happen as they do, but actively willing for things to happen precisely the way they do happen. This attitude is, of course, the ancestor of Nietzsche’s “Yes” granted to the cosmos, a “yes” which immediately justifies the world's existence.8 Finally, in the discipline of action, we are to try to ensure that all our actions are directed not just to our own immediate, short-term advantage, but to the interests of the human community as a whole.

Hadot finally came to believe that these spiritual attitudes—“spiritual” precisely because they are not merely intellectual, but involve the entire human organism, but one might with equal justification call them “existential” attitudes—and the practices or exercises that nourished, fortified and developed them, were the key to understanding all of ancient philosophy. In a sense, the grandiose physical, metaphysical, and epistemological structures that separated the major philosophical schools of Antiquity—Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism9—were mere superstructures, intended to justify the basic philosophical attitude. Hadot deduced this, among other considerations, from the fact that many of the spiritual exercises of the various schools were highly similar, despite all their ideological differences: thus, both Stoics and Epicureans recommended the exercise of living in the present . . . .

As a young philosophy student, I had often been disillusioned by finding that my philosophical heroes had feet of clay: although they wrote fine-sounding phrases in their books, they were often vain, disdainful, or otherwise unpleasant when one met them in person. Not so Pierre Hadot: like Plotinus, he was always available to himself, but above all to others. For his 80th birthday, Hadot reserved a restaurant near Limours for over a hundred guests, who were distributed at tables in groups of six to eight. As the meal progressed, Hadot made sure to come and sit for a while at each table, laughing and joking with everyone, making each guest feel as though he or she were truly special to him. Waiters and hostesses received, unfailingly, the same friendly, non-condescending treatment . . . .

What is certain is that he has trained a generation of students and scholars who continue his work, and that his writings, translated into many languages, continued to inspire readers from throughout the world, many of whom wrote him to say, in a variety of formulations: “You have changed my life.” Pierre Hadot was a man almost destitute of personal vanity, but if there was one thing he was proud of, it was not the multiple honors he received throughout his career, but the effect he had on the average reader.
"Pagan, Communist, and Un-American"
(No wonder I loved Avatar!!

I can think of no smooth way to pull off this very abrupt segway, so I'll just blunder ahead ....

In Dr. Ted Baehr's "Movie Guide" column over at WorldNetDaily (the people behind the online petition to demand the public release of Barack Obama's birth certificate) we find a "review" of Avatar (dated December 19, 2009) which reads, in part, as follows:
In the Hugo-winning science-fiction novel "The Sheep Look Up" by John Brunner (perhaps the ultimate environmental disaster novel), the final solution to stopping the environment from being destroyed by man is to kill off the most "wasteful" nation on earth, the American people!

James Cameron's new sci-fi extravaganza, "Avatar," set to open Friday, says virtually the same thing, but on a bigger scale. The major problem with "Avatar" is that Cameron tells a story that hates people.

In the story, a group of nature-worshipping aliens triumph over the greedy, evil human corporations that want to destroy their planet. The aliens eventually send the humans back to a dying earth to die. How marvelous!

If you think this sounds as if Al Gore wrote the script for "Avatar," not James Cameron, you may be right. This theme of kill all the humans, especially the pro-American, capitalist humans, has long been an underlying message of the left-wing, environmentalist movement, beginning with Rachel Carson's hysterical plea to ban DDT, even though, to this day, there is no evidence that DDT is harmful to humans or the environment, and even though the use of DDT can save millions of human lives from the deadly disease of malaria.

Many millions of malaria deaths later, along comes "Avatar" to, once again, cast human beings, especially militaristic capitalists, as the super-villain and to create heroes out of a bunch of pagan primitives who have achieved an idyllic, but impossible, at-one-ment with nature. For hundreds of years, the pagan, communist ideas expressed in this movie circulated among a threadbare group of outcasts with dirty fingernails and greasy hair, who shared their obtuse, occult ideas amongst themselves with manic, alienated glee. Now, James Cameron has made these insane views the major bulwark of a very spectacular movie, but the spectacle does not make these Neo-Marxist views any more coherent, rational or uplifting.
Be still, my beating heart. He had me at John Brunner!!

But, hey, why let the Birthers and Tea Partiers have all the fun?? Mark Morford, an award winning (and twice suspended) "non-journalistic" columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle/ goes after James Cameron, the all-wise, all-powerful Creator of Avatar, as a purveyor of "alien porn" (which, apparently, Morford does not approve of):
Let's just say it outright: This is a movie about alien porn. It's about the great, timeless, hypererotic white man fantasy of the Other. Inhabiting it, having sex with it, becoming it, moving inside it, running and leaping and fighting and taking spectacular risks just before falling into a bed of florid vines with your significant -- and incredibly hot -- alien companion to fondle her tail as the planet smiles in happy bioluminescent munificence all around you.

Let me be clear. I don't mean "hot" in the typical sci-fi sense. The Na'vi are not cheeseball pneumatic fantasy creations, the males all bloated, vein-popping muscle-bound meatheads and the females sporting Volkswagen-sized breasts and giant firedragon swords and asses from here to Lara Croft. They are not the generic, infantile, 10-year-old boy-lost-at-Comic-Con kind of hot. Not completely, anyway.

No, this is adult hot. Kinky hot. Exoticism wrapped in virile prowess slipped into a giant sheath of sexy blue lizardleather. It would appear that James Cameron and his nefarious crew of kinkhounds probed every nook and cranny and orifice of Freud's extraterrestrial fantasy handbook to invent the dreamiest blue lustcreature imaginable. Yes, this is a movie about fetishism.
So let me see if I have this right: Paganism + Communism + Unamericanism and adult kinky hot sexy blue lizardleather??? Holy fuck -- I am a stone cold polytheist, but James Cameron just might be GOD!

And as if the above were not enough, Morford follows it by 8 paragraphs of detailed descriptions of the Na'vi's alien-pornographical physical features: their godlike physical size, their phenomenal gracefulness, their sexy as hell tails, their large catlike eyes with dilated pupils (Morford provides a very helpful link to the Bondage Fairies wikipedia page to emphasize just how "downright perversion-ready combustible" those eyes are), their dreamy blue skin, their bioluminescent sparkliness, their elfin ears, and their Exotic Tribal Africanness. And then comes the very non-journalistic, uh, climax of Morford's column:
Behold, the ultimate in guilty colonialist fetish fantasy epic porn filmmaking, ever. Flawed, broken white man can, with his righteous modern technology, fuse his DNA with super-hot exotic sexually flawless alien species and become the Other and save the world and then score the hot chick from "Star Trek."

Dude. Mr. Cameron sir. Just stop your silly overblown movie right there. You don't even have to have them fight the bad guys or run from monsters or stage ridiculous epic battle sequences. What's the point? Just have a lame white dude become a giant gorgeous blue sexhotsuckerbeast Na'vi, and film him walking down the street and ordering a latte from Starbucks. Watch humanity share one giant, collective Lacanian psychospiritual orgasm. Perfect.
Stoic Theology, Anyone?

Now how am I going to bring this back to Stoic Theology? Well, I'll start with two of the theological themes of Avatar: pantheism and panpsychism, both of which are very closely related to Stoic Theology.

Pantheism, as many people already know, at least vaguely, is the idea that the entire Cosmos is a single, Divine Being. A shortcoming of pantheism is that by itself it can lead to an overly abstract Divinity that is not only "impersonal" but is downright mindless and unconscious (and, from an emotional viewpoint, uncaring). But when panpsychism is added to pantheism, the Cosmos is not only a unified, living, divine whole, but, in addition, there is Somebody Home: the Cosmos is Aware.

While modern philosophers (and when it comes to pantheism, "modern" goes all the way back to Baruch Spinoza, who died 99 years before the Declaration of Independence was written), have made their attempts at understanding and elucidating pantheism and panpsychism, both of these ideas are very clearly laid out in Plato's philosophy, especially in his cosmological masterpiece, the Timaeus. And Plato, in turn was not boldly declaring a radical new idea at all, but was rather perpetuating (in his very own brilliant way) an idea already current among the Pythagorean philosophers.

It is very possible that Plato learned his cosmology from Socrates, whose own teachings may have been far more theological and cosmological than many people now suppose. (See especially the discussion of Socrates' "teleological cosmology" in this post, and also this one, and references therein, especially to Book 1 Ch. iv of Xenopon's Memorabilia.) It is also likely that Plato studied with the Pythagoreans in Magna Graecia after the execution of Socrates (when Plato was still only 25 years old). Most likely, in my opinion, is that Plato's cosmology is informed both by the teachings of Socrates, and by what Plato learned among the Pythagoreans after the death of his beloved teacher.

The important thing is that we need not rely on modern scholars who tend to define pantheism and panpsychism in ways that are far too narrow, and that can be quite stilted and are often useless for anyone who approaches these things from a Pagan perspective.

Panpsychism (from a Pagan perspective) is intrinsically teleological. What that means, simply, is that the Cosmos is not just alive, divine and aware, but that it is also ordered and purposeful. In fact the orderliness and purposefulness of the Cosmos is intrinsic to the original intention behind adopting the Greek word kosmos as a philosophical term: the word was already used (that is, before Pythagoras got his hands on it) both to describe an orderly and efficient arrangement of well-marshaled soldiers (the Greeks loved a good phalanx!), and also to refer to a pleasing arrangement of a woman's dress, jewelry and hair.

According to Xenophon, Socrates used to teach in the following manner:
The more exalted the Gods are, while they deign to attend to you, the more ought you to honor them .... Do you not, then, believe that the Gods take thought for men? the Gods who, in the first place, have made man alone, of all animals, upright .... Do you not see, too, that to other animals they have so given the pleasures of sexual intercourse as to limit them to a certain season of the year, but that they allow them to us uninterruptedly till extreme old age? Nor did it satisfy the Gods to take care of the body merely, but, what is most important of all, they implanted in him the soul, his most excellent part.
[Memorabilia, I.iv.12-18]
Socrates used arguments like the one above against those who "neither sacrificed to the Gods, when engaged on any enterprise, nor attended to auguries, but ridiculed those who regarded such matters" [I.iv.2]. Xenophon revisits this subject in Book IV, chapter III of the Memorabilia, where he states that Socrates "endeavored to impress his associates with right feelings towards the Gods." As in Book I, Chapter IV (above) Socrates makes use of the argument that the Gods created us and the world around us and, therefore, they are worthy of our worship since they "exercise the greatest care for man in every way." After hearing such an argument, Euthymus declares that from henceforth, "I shall never fail, in the slightest degree, in respect for the divine power."

In the movie Avatar, messengers from the Great Goddess Eywa appear at just the right moment to provide just the right sign to let Neytiri know that Jake Sully is, well, alright (unlike the other sky people). And this lets us know that something much more than a mere impersonal pantheism is at work here: Pandora is a world that is not only a single living divinity (pantheism), but is also conscious (panpsychism) and that also acts in a purposeful manner (teleology).

In future installments in this series on Stoic Theology I will rely heavily on a wonderful book titled, appropriately enough, Stoic Theology, by P.A. Meijer. I will try to avoid keep to a minimum future references to Bondage Fairies, but you can count on frequent use of Pierre Hadot's writings and also invokations of Eywa.

[The beautiful, incredibly detailed drawing of Athens at the very top of this post was found here:
The extremely cute "Hello Cthulhu" cartoon is from here:]

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

200 Million African Pagans

. . . .
Fear of a Pagan Planet


If you take the number of Africans who have a "high level of belief and practice" in Traditional African Religion from the 19 countries surveyed recently by the Pew Forum, you get 135 million people.

If you then look at the Sub-Saharan countries not surveyed by Pew (see map below) and use the CIA factbook statistics for "traditional", "animistic", and "indigenous" religions, you get almost 45 million people. [This has been corrected now, I had originally thought the total was higher. See the map below for a detailed country by country breakdown of the numbers.]

That means that there are nearly 200 million Pagans in Africa. In fact, there are probably more than these statistics indicate. For example, many people who regularly participate in traditional ceremonies, visit traditional healers, and hold traditional non-Christian and non-Muslim beliefs were nevertheless counted by Pew as Christians or Muslims while ignoring their Traditional beliefs and practices.

"Pagan" is not a derogatory term. Socrates and Plato were Pagans. The people who gave us our the words "democracy", "republic" and "constitution" were all Pagans. The people who laid the foundations upon which western civilization are built were all Pagans.

But wait, there's more. The people who invented agriculture, writing, cities, roads, metallurgy, architecture, art, music, poetry, dancing, singing, beer, wine, barbecue, parties, plays, novels, geography, astronomy, mathematics, physics, biology, medicine, etc, were all Pagans. Just like 200 million people living in Africa today.

The map below shows the breakdown, by country, of those who continue to follow Traditional African Religions. Countries shaded darker have data from the 2010 Pew study on religion in Sub-Saharan Africa. Other countries have data from CIA/US State Department. Some countries either have no data available or insignificant numbers of traditionalists.

Related Posts on African Traditional Religion:

"Togo's Voodoo Fetish Markets Do Brisk Trade"

The following is from a story at titled "Togo's Voodoo Fetish Markets Do Brisk Trade" (written by Ken Maguire, a journalist formerly based in Washington, DC, but now living in and writing about West Africa):
Roman Catholic priest Michel Badagbor can only wonder just how many of his parishoners visit the fetish market, where remedies to block evil spells and "juju" can be bought to ensure prosperity.

“We don’t know who goes there and comes here,” he said outside St. Maria Goretti church. “When someone informs me, we call that person. We try to resolve these problems.”
Notice the casualness in the priest's approving description of how members of his flock "inform" on each other to him about their visits to religiously proscribed areas. And while there is no hint of violence, still it comes from an official representative of the people who brought us the Spanish Inquisition. And maybe it's just because I've lately been watching the first season of the Sopranos on DVD, but the statement "We try to resolve these problems" really does seem to have a sinister ring to it.

Anyway, Maguire's report on "Togo's Voodoo Fetish Markets" is yet another story coming out of Africa in the wake of the new Pew study on religion in Sub-Saharan Africa. Interestingly, Togo, where a whopping 51% (although some estimates go as high as 70%) of the population follow Traditional African Religions, is not one of the 19 countries included in the Pew survey. Nor is next-door Benin, where Vodou is so prominent that, unlike other Traditional religions in Africa it is often listed separately and by name in demographic data (in nearly all cases only generic terms such as "traditional religion" or "indigenous religion" are used).

Ghana and Nigeria (two countries that Pew did survey) along with Benin and Togo together include the main areas populated by speakers of the Gbe languages (including Ewe and Fon), and also the Yoruba languages. These groups along the coast of this corner of West Africa comprise what is arguably the most important center of Traditional African Religion, and what is without a doubt one of the most impressive and inspiring oases of determined resistance to the spiritual desertification, in the name of the spread of the Christian Gospel, that has eradicated so much of Africa's (and humanity's!) spiritual heritage. There could be as many as 30 million, or even more, adherents of Traditional African Religion in just these four countries.

But let's go back to Maguire's article, to hear more of what the kindly Father Badagbor and some other West Africans have to say:

Badagbor, the Catholic priest, says a true Christian can’t practice both religions. Muslim scholars say the same.

“Christians in particular who do are hypocrites. There is only one God to love. Christians must be models for others,” he said.

Didier Domeko is among the few Africans who identifies with neither Christianity nor Islam. He says he believes in several idols, or gods.

“Every morning I pray [to them] that my family will be in good health,” he said during an interview in French. “They are all very helpful. They’re used for healing people.”

Domeko works alongside hundreds of retailers at an open-air merchandise market featuring used clothing, shoes and household goods. His booth contains various types of herbs, wood, seeds, perfumes and candles for religious ceremonies.

Adjacent is a seller who is Christian. He taped a cardboard sign above his booth. The hand-written message, translated from French, asks its readers: “If you die today, are you going to heaven or hell? Jesus loves you, come to him.”

Maguire also has some quotes directly from two Pew researchers who are eager to explain away and minimize the dogged survival of Traditional religions well into the 21st century.

Alan Cooperman, an associate director at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, told Maguire, “The big point here is very sizable percentages who are Muslims or Christians, and in fact very religious Muslims or Christians, also are retaining and participating in African traditional beliefs and practices."

Cooperman (who worked as a prize-winning journalist for 27 years before coming to Pew) chooses his words very carefully. He insists that tens of millions of Africans who believe in reincarnation, worship traditional African Deities, participate in ancient pre-Christian ceremonies, have collections of traditional sacred objects and possibly even dedicated traditional shrines in their homes, etc. -- are still to be classified as Christian and only as Christian. Their religion is Christianity even though they "retain and participate in African traditional beliefs and practices." This obsession with laying claim to the "exclusive rights", as it were, to people's souls is an example of the missionary mentality described so well by Rev. Dr. Timothy M. Njoya (here) who likened it to the greedy harvesting of rhino horns and elephant tusks by poachers.

Maguire also quotes Luis Lugo, Director of the Pew Forum, who removes any doubts about the Borg-like mindset at work here: "African traditional beliefs and practices live on but they’re living on primarily by being incorporated by Christians and Muslims into their daily lives. How they square that with their primary allegiance to Christianity or Islam is a separate question."

Other posts on Traditional African Religions:
"Africa became Christian by Submission not by Conversion"
You might be Pagan if .... (Part Deux)
You might be a Pagan if ....
Every picture tells a story
Traditional African Religions Continue To Thrive
More On Traditional African Religions

Fela Kuti and Traditional African Religion
Secret Knowledge, Sacred Knowledge (on Candomble)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Africa became Christian by submission, not by conversion."

The following are excerpts taken from a 1998 article by Rev. Dr. Timothy M. Njoya titled The Church as a Global Society. Njoya is a minister of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa.

I have intentionally edited out, as much as possible without destroying the sense, all positive (or even exculpatory) references to Christianity. Obviously, Njoya is a Christian, and he wishes to contrast his critique of the Christianity of the European Colonialists with what he would claim is the "true spirit of the Gospel", or something like that.

But the fact is that what the European colonizers and missionaries and slave-traders did in Africa was perfectly in line with the whole history of Christianity up to that time. And, further, it is perfectly consistent with the "true spirit" of all forms of monotheistic religion, which by their very nature manifest themselves through violence and coercion.

[This is a follow-up to this previous post, also dealing with the history of Christianity and Colonialism in Africa.]
The first thing Christianity did in Africa was to make people surrender their sovereignty to church hierarchies and governments. African dictators did not learn any lessons in democracy from the way churches were established, like fiefdoms.

Christianity brought to Africa nothing of the modernization, democracy and industrial revolution that the missionaries enjoyed in their own countries. The church made the divine right of political and church leaders part of its curriculum of evangelism. Africa became a junkyard for governments discarded by the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions.

The slave trade and colonialism ended, not because there was any conversion or improvement in western Christianity or democracy, but because slavery and colonialism ceased to be profitable enterprises due to improved technology. Evil carries its own seeds of self-destruction. But self-destruction is not the same as repentance . . . .

By not accepting liability for the ravages of capitalism and imperialism, the church becomes a liability. Christianity should stop playing the role of maintenance and repair in the capitalist system. The church cannot cure western guilt with charity, poverty alleviation projects, contextualization, indigenization or Africanization programmes . . . .

The Christianity we have now is a soul-saving machine with no awareness of the demands of the gospel. The main preoccupation of the church is to assure those who have no value in capitalism of the great value for their souls in heaven.

Soul-salvation is a tragedy. Missionaries treated Africans as cartons containing souls, just as poachers reduce elephants and rhinos to carcasses: carrying tusks and horns . . . .

Africa became Christian by submission, not by conversion. African governments were similarly established, by conquest and not by consent . . . .

"The first thing Christianity did in Africa . . . ."

Below is a fascinating and thoughtful essay by Patrick Gathara, a Kenyan writer and political cartoonist, on the subject of the upcoming Kenyan constitutional referendum (and the issue of abortion in particular). The essay appears in Gathara's blog, but has also been picked up by the Nairobi based publication East African, and also at Much of the essay deals with the role of missionaries and the Church in the history and politics of Kenya and Africa. Also see this post, and also this one, and the links found therein, for more on Traditional African Religions and the interplay of Christianity and Colonialism in Africa.
Last week, when retired Anglican Archbishop David Gitari warned the Kenyan church that it risked being defeated at the referendum if it maintains the "No" stand at the referendum on the Proposed Constitution, he underlined the fact that the country’s most venerable institution stands at a critical crossroads in its illustrious career.

The church objects to the section of Article 26 that empowers doctors to end a pregnancy if it endangers the woman’s life or she needs emergency treatment. Christian leaders are also opposed to the retention of Kadhis’ courts in the proposed Constitution under Article 169 and 170, which limit their authority to disputes over personal status, marriage, divorce or inheritance, where all the parties are Muslims and agree to take the case to a Kadhi.

However, with most players across the political spectrum, including civil society, rallying behind the draft, the church is being confronted with the awkward possibility of being on the wrong side of history. The situation has also raised fundamental questions regarding the historical role of religion in the country’s political development and whether it has been a force for change or a tool of appeasement.

In his introduction to Religion and Politics in Kenya: Essays in Honour of a Meddlesome Priest, Ben Knighton, who teaches at the Africa Studies Centre in the University of Oxford, notes that Evangelical Lutherans of the Church Missionary Society reached Buganda in 1877 closely followed by Roman Catholic missionary orders. The proposed Uganda Railway led to a host of missions from many denominations targeting the region, but faced with the Anglican–Roman Catholic duopoly in Uganda, they stopped off in the East African Protectorate that became Kenya Colony. In fact “in many localities of Kenya, it was the missionary who took up residence before the district officer.”

A 1998 article penned by Rev Dr Timothy Njoya states: “The first thing Christianity did in Africa was to make people surrender their sovereignty to church hierarchies and governments.” According to John Lonsdale, retired professor of Modern African History at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity College, the missionaries saw colonial rule as good for the natives, who, to them, appeared to be barbarous polygamists, afflicted by famine and disease — a savage and suffering people, for whom British rule was clearly a blessing.

When they did speak out against the heavy taxes and forced labour imposed on Africans for the benefit of white settlers, it was not out of outrage at a perceived injustice. Thinking African men guilty of sinful sloth, they had already concluded that forced labour was indeed a good thing, if properly supervised by a British official. They only proposed that those African men who could prove they had worked for themselves, and their families, for a season, be exempted from conscription. This was meant to protect their African converts, who were deemed to have been redeemed from their laziness.

It is ironic, therefore, that while the church for the most part desisted from openly criticising the injustices of colonialism, it nonetheless sired the leadership of the African nationalist movement. According to Knighton, the Church of Scotland, in Thogoto (Kikuyu for Scot) and the influential Anglican centre and mother church at Kabete between them created the Kiambu elite that became the African political establishment of Kenya, “right at the heart of the new nation, ensconced on the pleasant, greener side of the capital.”

In fact, not only was the future African nationalist leadership educated in mission schools, many of them were religiously inclined. Knighton points out that Bildad Kaggia was an itinerant preacher and both Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga remained deeply devoted their tribal African Instituted Churches to the end of their days.

As the national stature of these leaders grew, so did the profile of the Christian church. A recently released study of religion in sub-Saharan Africa shows a steep rise in the number of Christians between the 1950s and the 1970s accompanied by an equally precipitous drop in adherents to traditional religion. It was in this period that Kenya became a majority Christian country.

After independence, the Africanisation of the economy was mirrored by the ascent of Africans to the leadership of the church. According to Lonsdale, just as an educated political elite, wielding power along ethnic lines was emerging, so a clerical elite was created in the church, also segmented along tribal lines — a result of the colonial policy which permitted different missionary denominations to enjoy separate spheres of territorial, and tribal, influence to stave off religious strife.

With such a confluence of interests, the churches were initially reluctant to criticise the increasingly authoritarian bent of the Kenyatta government. According to Knighton, though the churches had in 1969 belatedly fulminated against Kenyatta’s oathing of the Kikuyu following Tom Mboya’s murder, no individual of the church challenged the nation and “those in authority” in the mass media till David Gitari’s radio sermons following the assassination of J.M. Kariuki in 1975.

When Daniel arap Moi ascended to power following the death of Kenyatta, he too was allowed a long honeymoon period despite the increasingly brutal nature of his dictatorship, especially following the 1982 coup attempt. In fact, when Rev Njoya kicked off the call for the “second independence” with his New Year's Day sermon in 1990, he was vilified even by some church leaders who would later become luminaries in the fight for democracy including the late Archbishop Manasses Kuria, who declared that “the church of the Province of Kenya supports President Moi and the one-party system." Njoya’s own church, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, warned him against confrontational behaviour toward the government, reiterating the PCEA's unreserved support for President Moi and government.

Eventually though, the tide turned and, in the words of Galia Sabar-Friedman, “the church took upon itself the role of advocating democratisation in Kenya.” However, as Lonsdale observes, its motives may have been somewhat mixed. “Kenya’s churches first protested on behalf of their clerics and their flocks against the Moi regime’s abuses of power in the ‘queue-voting election’ of 1988, not on behalf of the Kenyan citizenry at large. In this they followed, if unknowingly, the example of the missionaries on the issue of forced labour 70 years before.”

Following the routing of Kanu in the 2002 elections, the churches again went AWOL. Knighton says they “lost their critical distance from government.” He singles out the general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Kenya and chairman of the Ufungamano Initiative, Mutava Musyimi, who, “having been a resolute opponent of President Moi was anything but with President Kibaki. Musyimi accepted high-level government appointments, such as chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Campaign Steering Committee, and did not resign after the shameful hounding out of John Githongo and the resignation of the director, Jane Kiragu, in February 2004.”

During the run-up to the 2007 general election, and the ensuing violence, the churches found themselves hopelessly split. According to Knighton, when Kofi Annan searched for a senior churchman of integrity and courage to enable a Kenyan solution to the post-election crisis, he couldn’t find one. They were all regarded as too compromised.

Rev Musyimi, who had resigned his church job, was running for parliament along with several other churchmen and women including Bishop Margaret Wanjiru and Pastor Pius Muiru, who also ran for the presidency. As reported in the Nation, some clergymen even admitted to blessing warriors to engage in violence and inviting politicians to disseminate hate messages that incited people against members of various communities.”

Gitari opposed the candidature of both Wanjiru, and Muiru saying, “Bishops and other ordained church leaders should not seek elective political positions.” He would later lament that “the state and the church have gone to bed together… the church has been compromised… the conscience of society has been wounded.”

Following this debacle, it was not till February 2009, at a nationally televised prayer meeting and fundraising for the Sachangwan and Nakumatt fires in which 160 people were burnt to death, that the churches found their voice, launching a blistering attack on both the president and the prime minister in an attempt to recover the high moral ground.

As the above history demonstrates, the Christian churches have not always, nor even often, stood on the side of ordinary Kenyans. While they have been a potent force for much positive change, it is instructive to note that they have accomplished this primarily in pursuit of their own selfish interests, and not the common welfare. When dictatorship has suited them, they have embraced it and kow-towed to its whims. Their current stand on the constitution should be understood in this light.

"The Basis of Universal Spirituality" (Contra Prothero, Part Two)

[The following is, complete and unaltered, The Basis of Universal Spirituality, which comprises Chapter Five of Sita Ram Goel's book Defense of Hindu Society. Much of this is, in turn, quoted from Ram Swarup's book The Word As Revelation: Names of Gods. The footnotes are active links that will take you to the Voice of Dharma website, where the online edition of the entire book is available (along with many other books by Sita Ram Goel and others). For a little background on Sita Ram Goel and Ram Swarup see: Hindus and Pagans: "A Return to the Time of the Gods", and also: "The Buddha, Sri Aurobindo and Plato": an interview with Ram Swarup. Also see Contra Prothero, Part One.]

The Basis of Universal Spirituality

Sri Ramakrishna was one day taunted by a sceptic that the Kali he worshipped at Dakshineshwar was only a slab of black stone carved into a bizarre female figure and decked with glittering trinkets. The saint was taken aback. So far he had not cared to see the sacred icon in its supreme spiritual splendour. He had been content to witness the Divine Mother in all Her majesty in the cave of his heart whenever he was in a state of samãdhi. Now he had been challenged to find out if what he worshipped was a figment of his fevered imagination.

He entered the sanctum sanctorum and stood before the sacred icon. He fixed his gaze on the holy figure, and prayed with all his concentrated psychic power: Mã ! dyãkhã dê (Mother ! Reveal Thyself). And lo and behold! The Divine Mother dazzled his physical eyes with the same indescribable infinities as he had witnessed with his inner eye while meditating on Her form. He looked back at the sceptic who had accompanied him, and smiled with compassion. The sceptic had seen nothing which he had not seen before. To his physical eyes, the Goddess was still a slab of black stone. And it had not been given to him to train the inner eye.

The point which was made that day at Dakshineshwar was that to the physical consciousness a slab of stone in any shape or form will always remain a slab of stone, while to another consciousness which has awakened to some sublime dimension the same slab will reveal its innermost mysteries. To a consciousness such as that of Sri Ramakrishna who had already scaled the highest spiritual heights, the slab of stone became an incarnation of Sat (Truth), Cit (Consciousness), and Ãnanda (Bliss). It was not the icon which was inert and inconscient; it was the witness within the sceptic which had not yet awakened to its own spiritual power. It is not the Gods who are unwilling to reveal themselves; it is the worship which has not yet known how to woo them.

This is the spiritual secret discovered by the Vedic seers. This is the mystery and miracle witnessed and vouchsafed by Hindu saints and sages throughout the ages. And this is the vast vision which forms the spiritual centre of Hindu society.

There is a consciousness, inherent in all beings, everywhere and at all times, which, when reached and brought forward, witnesses the world-play as a drama of divine forms and forces. There is not a thing, nor a thought which does not get transfigured from the terrestrial into the celestial, whenever and wherever this consciousness comes into play. Everything then returns to and resumes its supreme spiritual status, or becomes the outer symbol of an inner sublimity. It is these sublimities which invite the seer’s worship as Gods and Goddesses. It is these sublimities which spur the bhakta to burst out in song and stuti, the paens of praise pouring out of a grateful heart for being permitted to witness what has been witnessed.

The Vedic seers were not primitive animists who invested the phenomena of physical Nature with anthropomorphic attributes, as the “Science” of Comparative Religion will have us believe. They were spiritual explorers who discovered and employed well-defined yogic disciplines to raise up human consciousness from its terrestrial turmoil to its transcendent tranquility. Nor were the Vedic Gods and Goddesses born in the poetic hyperboles of some barbaric bards, as the “higher criticism” of modern Indologists will have us imagine. The poetry did not precede the birth of the Vedic pantheon. On the contrary, it succeeded that birth when the Vedic seers saw the inner secrets of outer forms.


Sages such as Sri Aurobindo who have meditated on Hindu iconography, and savants such as Ananda Coomara-swamy, Stella Kramrisch, and Alice Boner who have studied the subject, assure us that the forms and features of Hindu icons have a source higher than the normal reaches of the human mind. The icons are no photocopies of any human or animal forms as we find them in their physical frames. They are in fact crystallizations of the abstract into the concrete, of the infinite into the finite. They always point beyond themselves, and a contemplation of them always draws us from the outer to the inner.

Hindu Šilpašãstras lay down not only technical formulas for carving holy icons in stone, and metal, and other materials. They also lay down elaborate rules about how the artist is to fast, and pray, and otherwise purify himself for long periods before he is permitted, if at all, to have a psychic image of the God or Goddess whom he wants to incarnate in a physical form. It is this sublime source of the Šilpašãstras which alone can explain a Sarnath Buddha, or a Chidambram NaTarãja, or a Vidisha Varãha, to name only a few of the large assembly of divine images inhabiting the earth. It is because this sublime source is not accessible to modern sculptors that we have to be content with poor copies which look like parodies of the original marvels.

The same sages and savants inform us that the Hindu temple architecture and the rituals that are performed at the time of pûjã, also have a sublime source. This is a deep and difficult subject, largely beyond the reach of the present writer. I shall, therefore, not proceed with it. What needs to be emphasized is that the plurality of Hindu Gods, the icons in which they are embodied, the temples in which they are installed, and the rituals with which they are worshipped, are not mere accessories and aids towards some deeper spiritual vision; instead, they incarnate the vision itself.

Ram Swarup has presented the proper perspective on the plurality of Hindu Gods as well as their incarnation in concrete images, in his recently published book, The Word As Revelation: Names of Gods. His discussion leaves no doubt that the plurality of the Hindu pantheon, and the large use of concrete images is not only quite in keeping with but also necessary corollaries of (1) the spontaneous processes of human psychology, (2) the normal growth of human knowledge culminating in spiritual vision, and (3) the natural development of human language for incorporating and communicating that knowledge and vision. I will quote at length from Ram Swarup’s book because I find it difficult to clothe his insights in my own language.


He introduces the subject as follows:

“If we look at the word ‘God’, we find that though today it has acquired a forced, intellectualized outward meaning appropriate to the mentality of the present age, yet it still retains the memory of the idea of a deity of a more intuitive people and of more spontaneous times.

“Etymologists connect this word with Gothic guth, which is Skt. huta, which means ‘one to whom oblations are made’ and, therefore, one who is worshipped. It connects us with the period when fire was a great living symbol of the deity within and around. In later times, the symbol was denounced as nature-worship by some sects but there was a time when it claimed, along with the Sun and the Sky, universal acceptance. Even Moses who belonged to an iconoclastic tradition had a glimpse of his God through the medium of fire. And in the Old Testament itself, certain hymns are considered ‘nature hymns’ by its scholars.

“Etymologists also connect the word with the German word gotse whose original meaning was an image or a figure. In the Norse language also, the word meant ‘image of a deity’. So the word perhaps referred to the practice of worshipping God through various images and figures, a practice quite common amongst different peoples all over the world, ancient as well as modern.

“There is another feature worth noticing. Spengler tells us that the Old German word for ‘God’ was a neutral plural and was turned into a masculine singular by Christian propaganda. The same is true of the word in the Norse and Teutonic languages. But after the heathens were converted, God changed his gender and number. This can hardly be regarded as the deepening of its meaning and conception.

“The Hebrew word Elohim too is plural in origin, form and sense. The same is true of the Semitic word El. It is not the name of the deity common to all but is a common name for different deities in the Semitic world.

“Thus we see that the untutored and the more spontaneous intuition of the human race excludes neither the plurality of Gods nor the use of images and nature symbols from its religious sensibility. The denial comes when the mind becomes too conceptual; or when dogmatic faith develops faster than understanding.

“If we study the ancient religious literature of the Hindus, particularly the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Mahabharata, certain things stand out prominently. The very first thing is a very large use of concrete image. There are Gods like Indra, PûSana, VaruNa, Ašvins for whom there are no physical correspondences, but many important Gods like Sûrya, Agni, Marut take their names after natural objects.

“There is also another important feature that we notice. The spiritual consciousness of the race is expressed in terms of the plurality of Gods. In these two respects, at least, the Hindu approach agreed with the spiritual intuition of other ancient peoples.


“The physical and intellectual are not opposed to one another. The names of physical objects become names of ideas, names of psychic truths, names of Gods; sensuous truths become intellectual truths, become spiritual truths. As the knowledge of the senses becomes the knowledge of the Manas and the Buddhi, the knowledge originating in the higher organs of the mind also tends to filter down to the levels of the Manas and the senses. So in this way even the highest knowledge has its form, colour and sound. This need not lower down its quality in any way. In fact, this is the only way in which the sense-bound mind understands something of the higher knowledge.

“This reverberating, echoing and imaging takes place up and down the whole corridor of the mind, at all levels of abstraction. Here, as we traverse the path, we meet physical forms, sound-forms, vision-forms, thought-forms, universal forms, all echoes of each other. We meet mantras and yantras and icons of various efficacies and psychic qualities. In one sense, they are not the light above but they are its important formations. They invoke the celestial and raise up the terrestrial.

“There is another reason why images in the Vedas and the Upanishads are concrete. When the fever of the soul subsides, when the mind becomes calm, when the spiritual consciousness opens, things are no longer lifeless. In this state, things which have hitherto been regarded as ordinary are full of life, light and consciousness. In this state, ‘the earth meditates as it were; water meditates as it were; mountains meditate as it were.’1 In this state, no need is felt to separate the abstract from the concrete because both are eloquent with the same message, because both image one another. In this state, everything expresses the divine; everything is the seat of the divine; everything is That; mountains, rivers and the great earth are but the Tathãgata, as a Chinese teacher, Hsu Yun, proclaimed after his spiritual awakening.

“According to Hindu thought, the names of Gods are not names of external beings. They are names of truths of man’s own highest Self. So the knowledge of the epithets of Gods is a form of Self-knowledge. Gods and their names embody truths of the deeper Spirit and meditation on them in turn invokes those truths. But those truths are many and, therefore, Gods and their names too are many, though they are all held together in the unity of a spiritual consciousness.”


Next, he provides a peep into how the Western-Christian mind views the Vedic pantheon. He proceeds:

“This way of looking at the Godhead is disconcerting to the Western schematic mind. In the Vedic approach, there is no single God. This is bad enough. But the Hindus do not have even a supreme God, a fuhrer-God who presides over a multiplicity of Gods. If there has to be a plurality of Gods as is the case in all polytheistic religions, there could at least be a tabulated statement of Gods arranged in some order of superiority and inferiority, each God having some distinctive characteristics of his or her own. But here we have no such thing, no ranking, no order of seniority and precedence, no hierarchy, no recognizable magistracy; it is all anarchy. This melee could not even be called a pantheon - a body of Gods, however disordered (Gk. pan+theos); it is a body of demons and evil spirits, pandemonium (pan+diamon).

“It seems that the Hindus were either confused about their Gods or that these Gods were not jealous enough to be like the God of the Bible. The Hindus worshipped their Gods in turn with the same supreme epithets. It seems to be like a philanderer wooing several women at the same time with the same vows, promises, and protestations and telling each in turn that she is the only beautiful and true one for him. If they only knew what the man was doing there would be trouble enough for him. In like manner, if a Hindu God knew what his worshipper was telling his rival God, it would either expose the devotee’s insincerity or the powerlessness or his God.”


Finally, he presents the Vedic point of view in the following words:

"But there is another approach, quite a different one, which was adopted by the people of the Vedas. According to this approach, ‘Reality is one but the wise call it by different names; they call him Indra, Mitra, VaruNa, Agni, Yama, Mãtarišvãn.’2 Reality is like the Ganges: different villages along its banks are differently named but they are all on the same river; the people drink the same water and their soil is watered and fertilized by the same source. The Reality is like an ocean rolling against different continents; you taste it anywhere, it is the same. The Reality is like a nugget of gold; it is the same at the corners, at the top, or at the bottom, or in the middle. Like a lump of sugar, it is sweet at all points. Similarly, whether you go East or West, South or North, you move in the same pervading space and you meet the same truth and principle of things.

“The Hindus do not call their Gods either “One” or “Many”. According to them, what they worship is One Reality, ekam sat, which is differently named. This Reality is everywhere, in everything, in every being. It is One and Many at the same time and it also transcends them both. Everything is an expression, a play, an image, an echo of this Reality.

“In Vedic literature, the question of the number of Gods was no point of dispute and agitated no mind. The number could be increased or decreased at will. It all depended on the principle of classification, on the context, and on the viewpoint.

“There are two ways of regarding the Godhead. In one approach, God is a jealous one. He brooks no other. He is Ismael-like, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him. But in the Vedic concept, all Gods are friends, one and equal. BrahmaNaspati is associated with Indra, Soma and DakSiNa; they are invoked jointly. The Maruts are requested to come along accompanied, saMjagmãno, by Indra, and both are called of ‘equal splendour’, samãna varcasa.3 Indra and VaruNa are offered conjoint praise, sadhastut.4 They are invoked together. ‘I invoke you both,’ says the worshipper;5 or, ‘come Agni with the Maruts,’ is the repeated prayer of the devotee in another hymn.6

“Spiritual life is one but it is vast and rich in expression. The human mind also conceives it differently. If the human mind was uniform without different depths, heights and levels of subtlety; or if all men had the same mind, the same psyche, the same imagination, the same needs; in short, if all men were the same then perhaps One God would do. But a man’s mind is not a fixed quantity and men and their powers and needs are different. So, only some form of polytheism alone can do justice to this variety and richness.

“Besides this variety of human needs and humus minds, the spiritual reality itself is so vast, immense, and inscrutable that man’s reason fails and his imagination and fancy stagger in its presence. Therefore, this reality cannot be indicated by one name or formula or description. It has to be expressed in glimpses from many angles. No single idea or system of ideas could convey it adequately. This too points to the need for some form of polytheism.


“In this deeper approach, the distinction is not between a true One God and the false Many Gods; it is between a true way of worship and a false way of worship. Wherever there is sincerity, truth, and self-giving in worship, that worship goes to the true altar by whatever name we may designate it and in whatever way we may conceive it. But if it is not desireless, if it has ego, falsehood, conceit, and deceit in it, then it is unavailing though it may be offered to the most True God, theologically speaking. ‘He who offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, that I accept from that striving devotee,’ says Lord Krishna in the Gita.7

“He also assures us that ‘those who worship other Gods with faith worship me,’ for ‘I am the enjoyer of all sacrifices.’8 Devotion, faith, austerity, striving in the soul - they all belong to Him; they are His food; they can never go to a false God though so declared by a rival theology.

“The fact is that the problem of One or Many Gods is born of a theological mind, not of a mystic consciousness. In the Atharvaveda, the sage Vena says that he ‘sees That in that secret station of the heart in which the manifoldness of the world becomes one-form’, yatra višvam bhavatyekarûpam9 or, as in the Yajurveda where the world is rested in one truth, eka nîDam.10 But in another station of man, where not his soul but his mind rules, there is opposition between the One and the Many, between God and Matter, between God and Gods. On the other hand, when the soul awakens, Gods are born in its depths which proclaim and glorify one another.

“Worship is in man’s soul and the divine glory is reflected in every symbol. Therefore, the Vedic seers worshipped Him in many forms and under many Names. ‘Veneration to the great Gods, veneration to the lesser, veneration to the young, veneration to the old, we worship all the Gods as well as we are able,’11 that is their attitude. A true heart’s homage cannot go waste; it cannot go to false Gods; in a divine economy, it is taken up by That which is the secret meaning and the principle of truth in everything.”

It was this all-pervading sense of divinity which inspired Hindu seers and sages to sense the same Sat-Cit-Ãnanda sleeping in the stone, stirring up in the sapling, smiling in the flower, singing in the bird, shining in the sun and the stars, and resuming its own supreme status at the summit of spiritual experience. It was in this crucible of concrete spirituality that they saw the one Divine Substance manifesting itself in a multiplicity of forms, and many Divine Diversities dissolving themselves in one ubiquitous Unity.

It was these intimations from infinity which invited Hindu saints and mystics to invoke the same Reality in many Names and Forms, and make it accessible to each aspirant according to his or her aptitude (adhikãra) and in keeping with the stage of his or her spiritual development (ãdhãra). They devised many ways of worship and sang their devotion unto the same Divinity in many languages. It was this vision of the One-in-Many and the Many-in-One which is the source of the Vedic verse, ekam sad viprãh bahudhã vadanti, which has now been torn out of context and turned from a trenchant truth of Sanãtana Dharma into a tawdry slogan of Monotheism.

This Vedic verse is neither a defence mechanism to be put into operation whenever the monopolies of Monotheism mouth their war-cry of the ‘true One God’, nor a secularist slogan to be shouted whenever a Muslim mob stages a riot over music before a mosque or over a pig wandering away into a Muslim mohalla. On the contrary, it is the statement of a profound principle which informs sincere spiritual seeking everywhere, at all times. It is the basis of a universal spirituality.


1 Chãndogya Upanishad, 7.6.1

2 Rigveda 1. 164.46.

3 Ibid., 1.6.7.

4 Ibid., 1.17.9.

5 Ibid., 1.17.7.

6 Ibid.,

7 Gita, 9.26.

8 Ibid., 9.23-24.

9 Atharvaveda, 2.1.1.

10 Yajurveda, 32.8.

11 Rigveda, 1.27.13.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Contra Prothero

Nor do we think of the Gods as different Gods among different peoples, nor as barbarian Gods and Greek Gods, nor as southern and northern Gods; but, just as the Sun and the Moon and the Heavens and the Earth and the Sea are common to all, but are called by different names by different peoples, so for that one Reason which keeps all these things in order and the one Providence which watches over them and the ancillary Powers that are set over all, there have arisen among different peoples, in accordance with their customs, different honours and appellations. Thus men make use of consecrated symbols, some employing symbols that are obscure, but others those that are clearer, in guiding the intelligence toward things Divine, though not without a certain hazard. For some go completely astray and become engulfed in superstition; and others, while they fly from superstition as from a quagmire, on the other hand unwittingly fall, as it were, over a precipice into atheism.
On Isis and Osiris]

Stephen Prothero has an article in this Sunday's Boston Globe promoting his latest book. Here's a quote that puts the depth of Prothero's ignorance on full display:
For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves — practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, and purveyors of fanciful myths.
Prothero knows less than nothing about the actual history of religion. If that were not the case, then he would know that "for most of human history", in fact, human beings have not thought in terms of "religious rivals" at all.

Those who actually study the history of religion know that the very idea of "religious rivalry", especially in the sharp sense that Prothero has in mind ("the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or nirvana or paradise") is foreign to most of the world's religions to this day, and was virtually unknown prior to the advent of Christianity. Even today, this "exclusivist missionary view" is limited to the monotheistic religions.

The problem with Prothero's whole approach is nicely illustrated by his use of the word "missionary", a term specifically associated with the peculiarly militant attitude that Christianity has toward all other religions, to characterize what he claims is a general feature of all religions throughout "most" human history.

Ancient polytheists of the Greco-Roman world simply did not think in terms of "religious rivals" whose religions were comprised of "empty rituals", "bogus miracles", and "fanciful myths". James B. Rives, in his Religion in the Roman Empire, goes so far as to state that they did not even think in terms of "different" religions from their own:
[O]n a fundamental level the various religious traditions of the [Roman] empire had more similarities than differences. As a result, when people from one tradition were confronted with another, they often found much that was familiar and immediately understandable, and tended to treat what was unfamiliar simply as a local peculiarity. In short, the impression we get from the sources is that people thought not so much in terms of "different religions," as we might today, but simply of varying local customs with regard to the gods.

[James B. Rives,
Religion in the Roman Empire, p. 6]
Rives, writing in 2006, was to a great extent re-iterating what Ramsay MacMullen had already written a quarter century earlier in his Paganism in the Roman Empire:
Plutarch's friend Clea, herself a priestess at Olympia, was also initiate in the rites of Osiris. She, then, could hardly have objected to the accommodation of a second loyalty; no more the priestess of Sun at Philippi, initiate into the mysteries of Cybele and of Dionysus. A cult association of Hercules set up a dedication to its own God in the temple of Jupiter Dolichenus in rome, and "the votaries of Sarapis," another guild, built a meeting room for Isis and Cybele in Rome's port. Examples abound of ministrants of one sort or another erecting an altar or a plaque or themselves signing some honorific inscription, in worship of a God other than the one they served. The practice can be observed without distinction of honorand, whether Roman, traditional Greek, Oriental, or Celtic; without distinction of area; and only circumscribed in time, perhaps. It may be that such actions are more often attested in the period after A.D. 150 than before. But even that is not sure.

These apparent betrayals of one's God were of course no only open, else never known to the present; they were divinely authorized. "By the interpretation of the rites of Sol," a worshiper honors Liber and Libera. Obviously the priest himself had overseen whatever was done; or a village honors "Zeus Galactinos according to Apollo's command"; a "priest of Sol invictus saw to the dedication of holy Silvanus, from a vision"; and so on, by a direct order from Hercules or Men or Apollo. It can only have been priests who guided these acts, seeing in them no betrayal at all. No one but priests can have permitted the placing in the temple of Dolichenus, in Rome, a relief that shows the God sitting next to his consort and holding busts of Sarapis and Isis: he had welcomed his friends from Egypt into his house. Priests directed that the feasts of Iarhibol and Aglibol in Palmyra should fall on the same day. The accommodation, fraternal welcome, courteous referra, or punctilious deference shown in one or another part of the surviving testimony seems to an unbeliever merely the interaction of worshipers and priests. But the worshipers and priests naturally saw it as the reflection here below of relations existing in the world above. Tolerance in paganism operated at both levels, until Christianity introduced its own ideas. Only then, from Constantine on, were Gods to be found at war with other Gods.

[Ramsay MacMullen,
Paganism in the Roman Empire, p. 93]
Nor was Macmullen stating anything new. David Hume, writing 250 years ago, had this to say:
The tolerating spirit of idolaters, both in ancient and modern times, is very obvious to anyone who is the least conversant in the writings of historians or travellers. When the oracle of Delphi was asked, what rites or worship was most acceptable to the Gods? “Those legally established in each city,” replied the oracle. Even priests, in those ages, could, it seems, allow salvation to those of a different communion. The Romans commonly adopted the Gods of the conquered people; and never disputed the attributes of those local and national deities in whose territories they resided. The religious wars and persecutions of the Egyptian idolaters are indeed an exception to this rule; but are accounted for by ancient authors from reasons singular and remarkable. Different species of animals were the deities of the different sects among the Egyptians; and the deities being in continual war, engaged their votaries in the same contention. The worshippers of dogs could not long remain in peace with the adorers of cats or wolves. But where that reason took not place, the Egyptian superstition was not so incompatible as is commonly imagined; since we learn from Herodotus, that very large contributions were given by Amasis towards rebuilding the temple of Delphi.

The intolerance of almost all religions which have maintained the unity of God is as remarkable as the contrary principle of polytheists.

[David Hume, "Comparison of these Religions with regard to Persecution and Toleration.", in his The Natural History of Religion]

Egyptologist Jan Assmann has gone even further and shown that this "contrary principle of polytheists" (ie, the mutual recognition of the religions of different peoples) was not at all peculiar to Greco-Roman civilization, but rather was already ancient when Athens and Rome were founded. Assmann traces what he calls the "translatability" of the Gods back at least to the 3rd millennium in Mesopotamia (see his Moses the Egyptian).

Much more could be said on the very well documented "universalistic" tendencies of ancient polytheism. For example, there is the fact that Homer portrays the Achaeans and Trojans and all the other peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean as worshipping the same Gods. Herodotus does the same in his Histories, as does Vergil in the Aeneid.

In addition to the works by Rives, MacMullen, Hume and Assmann already referred to, an excellent overview can be found in Jan Assmann's essay Monotheism and Polytheism, in the volume Ancient Religions edited by Sarah Iles Johnston.

To be continued . . . . .